The Political Philosophy of John Locke and Its Influence on the Founding Fathers and the Political Documents They Created

Part One: The Political Philosophy of John Locke

In his works “A Letter Concerning Toleration” (1689) and “The Second Treatise On Civil Government” (1690), philosopher John Locke created what would become the philosophical source for the founding principles of the United States. In what follows, I will summarize the central arguments presented in the Letter, followed by the arguments presented in the Treatise. Following the summaries, I will demonstrate the influence that these works had on the thinking of the founding fathers and the political documents they created.

Although not strictly a political work, “A Letter Concerning Toleration” presents a view of the means of understanding moral truths that has strong political implications. For although its specific focus is the separation of church and state, in essence, it deals with a much wider issue, which is that it is impossible for the state to compel moral behavior. Thus, when more broadly applied, it provides a philosophic foundation for free speech and for the freedom of action that follows from free thought.

In the letter, Locke maintains that there must be an absolute separation between the church and the state, that “the whole jurisdiction of the magistrate reaches only to… civil concernments,” so that “neither can nor ought [it] in any manner to be extended to the salvation of souls.” The power of the government “consists only in outward force; but true and saying religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind… And such is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force. Confiscation of estate, imprisonment, torments, nothing of that nature can have any such efficacy as to make men change the inward judgment that they have framed of things… It is only light and evidence that can work a change in men’s opinions…” In other words, a human understanding of truth requires a volitional relationship between an individual mind and reality, which in turn requires political freedom. Locke’s argument for the separation between church and state is in essence an argument for the separation of government force and mind.

Further, since this relationship only exists between an individual mind and reality, political leaders are in no superior position to grasp the truth than any other men are and therefore have no right to even attempt to force their opinions on others. “For there being but one truth… what hope is there that more men would be led into it if they had no rule but the religion of the court and were put under the necessity to quit the light of their own reason, and oppose the dictates of their own consciences, and blindly to resign themselves up to the will of their governors and to the religion which either ignorance, ambition, or superstition had chanced to establish in the countries where they were born?” Again, the precondition of thought, and thus truth, is political freedom.

Finally, Locke maintains that there must be a separation between church and state since the state exists not to enforce public morality, but to protect man’s rights from being violated by other men. “Covetousness, uncharitableness, idleness, and many other things are sins by the consent of men, which yet no man ever said were to be punished by the magistrate. The reason is because they are not prejudicial to other men’s rights, nor do they break the public peace of societies… the business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth and of every particular man’s goods and person…”‍

A year after publishing “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” Locke published “The Second Treatise On Civil Government.” Below is my summary of the essential ideas of that work.

Political power entails the right to make laws backed by the threat of force. There is no way to prove that one has a right to hold political power by reference to one’s ancestry. Since forming a government on such a basis leads to rule by brute force, and consequently, to civil disorder, another way must be found to choose political leaders, one derived from an understanding of men’s relationships to each other before the existence of government, i.e., of men’s relationships to each other in a state of nature.

In a state of nature, each man, as the possessor of reason and free will, is cognitively independent and equal, and so, by implication, politically independent and equal. According to Locke, “being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of Nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorize us to destroy one another.” Thus, “the fundamental law of Nature” is what Locke calls the law of reason, i.e., the law that men must deal with each other through the use of persuasion (reason), as opposed to coercion, so that “all, as much as may be, should be preserved.” In summary, Locke’s conception of the state of nature implies a law of nature, which is that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.” Natural law, then, implies natural rights to life, liberty and property.

Thus, according to Locke, the basis of the equality, independence, and ultimately, the freedom that exists between all individual men is their mutual possession of reason. As an example of this principle, he notes that children do not possess the freedoms possessed by adults until they have reached the age whereby their reason has developed: “Thus we are born free as we are born rational; not that we actually have the exercise of either: age that brings one, brings the other with it too.” Accordingly, the restrictions of freedom which parents place upon their children are only present to the degree to which the children are unable yet to fully exercise their rational faculties, and as the children mature, the domain of their freedom is progressively enlarged, until they are equal in their freedoms to their parents.

It must be noted that although the foregoing provides a secular or “natural” defense of rights, the ultimate defense of rights, according to Locke, is religious: that since men are “all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker… they are His property, whose workmanship they are made to last during His, not one another’s pleasure.”

A corollary of the natural law is the right to private property. This right is rooted in Locke’s premise that “God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life and convenience.” Yet “though all the fruits it naturally produces and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common… there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial, to any particular men.” How is this appropriation justified?

Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a “property” in his own “person.” This nobody has any right to but himself. The “labor” of his body and the “work” of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labor with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature placed it in, it hath by this labor something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this “labor” being the unquestionable property of the laborer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to…”

Property belongs to those who, by their labor, bring such property into being, since “God gave the world… to the use of the industrious and rational (and labor was to be his title to it); not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious.” Locke further maintains that the legal possession of this property is a precondition of freedom: “till they are allowed their due property… men under any government are not in the state of free men, but are direct slaves under the force of war.” Yet, according to Locke, this right to the possession of that which one has mixed one’s labor with is not unlimited. Rather, it is limited to “as much as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labor fix a property in. Whatever is beyond this is more than his share, and belongs to others. Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.”

In contrast to the state of nature, is what Locke calls “the state of war,” which results whenever someone chooses to disobey the law of nature: “he who attempts to get another man into his absolute power [i.e., deals with another by means of force] does thereby put himself into a state of war with him.” The state of war directly or indirectly threatens the very lives of those on whom it is imposed, because “he that in the state of Nature would take away the freedom that belongs to anyone in that state must necessarily be supposed to have a design to everything else [i.e., all that is valuable to the other person, up to and including the other person’s life], that freedom being the foundation of all the rest.” Since “to be free from such force is the only security of my preservation… it is reasonable and just I should have a right to destroy that which threatens me with destruction… for the same reason that he [I] may kill a wolf or a lion, because they are not under the ties of the common law of reason, have no other rule but that of force and violence.” Thus, self-defense is a corollary of the natural law that “men, being once born, have a right to their preservation.”

The right to self-defense, however, is actually an application of a wider right of punishment, which right belongs equally to all those who obey the law of nature. “In transgressing the law of Nature, the offender declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common equity, which is the measure God has set to the actions of men for their mutual security, and so he becomes dangerous to mankind; the tie which is to secure them from injury and violence being slighted and broken by him, which being a trespass against the whole species, and the peace and security of it, provided for by the law of nature, any man… may restrain, or where necessary destroy things noxious to them…” It is based on the above principle that the magistrate gains the right to punish criminal offenses; however, “the municipal laws of countries… are only so far right as they are founded on the law of Nature, by which they are to be regulated and interpreted.”

Men leave the state of nature and establish a civil society when they voluntarily give their natural right to self-defense to a common public authority. They do this in order to acquire mutual protection of their “lives, liberties, and estates” from those who in a state of nature would be of danger to them, by means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force in under “established, settled, known law,” interpreted by an “indifferent judge,” with the “power to support the sentence when right.”

Thus underlying the laws of the government are the powers granted to individuals in the state of nature by the law of nature, transferred by their common consent to a government authority. “The obligations of the law of Nature cease not in society, but only in many cases are drawn closer, and have by human laws, known penalties annexed to them to enforce their obligation.” Locke maintains that the proper function of law is to create, rather than restrict, personal freedom, that the law of a government is not an instrument to restrain the freedom of a rational being, but is a framework required to preserve and enlarge it. For “where there is no law, there is no freedom. For liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others, which cannot be where there is no law.” In other words, law, in Locke’s view, exists only to stop the deeds of those who would transgress on another’s freedom, for the purpose of preserving that freedom. Such laws are not arbitrary, since “nobody can transfer to another [i.e., the government] more power than he has in himself.”

Such a government is legitimate because its powers derive from its citizens, who give their consent to its formation. By “agreeing with other men, to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living, one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it,” such men have given their “express consent” to the government of such a community. In addition, any man who is born within a particular government and accepts the protection provided by it thereby gives a “tacit consent” as to the legitimacy of that government.‍

In Locke’s conception, a proper government exercises three distinct and separate powers, the “legislative, executive, and federative power of the commonwealth.”‍

The first power of government to be established is “the legislative power,” which “is that which has a right to direct how the force of the commonwealth shall be employed for preserving the community and the members of it.” There are several conditions by which it maintains its legitimacy. First, those exercising the legislative power are chosen and appointed by the citizens. Second, they govern by “declared and received laws [i.e., the “rule of law”], and not by extemporary dictates.” Third, these laws are only interpreted by “known authorized judges.” Fourth, it “cannot take from any man any part of his property [i.e., collect taxes] without his own consent” [i.e., “taxation without representation”], since “the preservation of property” is “the end of government.” And finally, it “cannot transfer the power of making laws to any other hands, for it being but a delegated power from the people, they who have it cannot pass it over to others.”

Once the legislative force creates laws, there arises the need for an executive power “which should see to the execution of the laws.” “For the legislators not being able to foresee and provide bylaws for all that may be useful to the community… till the legislative can conveniently be assembled to provide for it… the good of society requires that several things should be left to the discretion of him that has the executive power.”

The third power of government, the federative, arises from the fact that, although in relation to one another the members of the commonwealth “are governed by the laws the society, yet… the whole community is one body in the state of Nature in respect of all other states or persons out of its community,” i.e., “all commonwealths are in the state of Nature one with another.” Out of this consideration, the power of the federative branch, “which one may call natural, because it is that which answers to the power every man naturally had before he entered into society… contains the power of war and peace, leagues and alliances, and all the transactions with all persons and communities without the commonwealth.”

The last major topic treated by Locke in the Second Treatise is the right of the citizens to revolt against tyrannies, i.e., governments wherein “the governor… makes not the law, but his will, the rule, and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.” Such a ruler “ceases in that to be a magistrate, and acting without authority may be opposed, as any other man who by force invades the right of another.” Thus “it is plain that shaking off a power which force, and not right, hath set over anyone, though it hath the name of rebellion, yet is no offense before God.” “Prince’s… owe subjection to the laws of God and Nature,” so that “the use of force without authority [i.e., the authority deriving from the law of nature] always puts him that uses it into a state of war as the aggressor, and renders him liable to be treated accordingly.” “… By this breach of trust, they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and by the establishment of a new legislative… provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society.” In short, the people “are absolved from obedience when illegal attempts are made upon their liberties or properties” because “self-defense is a part of the law of Nature.”

Part Two: The Influence Of The Political Philosophy Of John Locke On The Founding Fathers And The Political Documents They Created

In considering the influence of Locke’s thought on the founding fathers, I will focus my attention on the ideas of George Mason and Thomas Jefferson as the intellectual sources of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams as among the creators and defenders of the ideas underlying the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

As the author of the document that states the fundamental values for the attainment of which the United States of America was created, Thomas Jefferson is the most fundamental source of American political ideology. It is therefore significant that Jefferson considered Locke (along with Bacon and Newton) to be one of “the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical and Moral sciences.” It is also significant that Jefferson declared that the Second Treatise, along with Sidney’s “Discourses on Government,” provides the “general principles of liberty and the rights of man, in nature and in society… approved by our fellow citizens of… the United States.”

Jefferson’s advocacy of Locke’s ideas is evident both in the Declaration, and in his position paper addressed to the Assembly Of Virginia, written two years earlier, “A Summary View Of The Rights Of British America.” In this latter document, Jefferson, in Lockean style, describes Americans as “a free people claiming their rights, as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate,” and asserts that the ancestors of current Americans “possessed a right which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice, has placed them, of going in quest of new habitations, and of there establish new societies.”

As Locke maintains property as a natural right, so by extension does Jefferson maintain “the exercise of a free trade with all parts of the world, possessed by the American colonists, as of natural right.” As Locke maintains that the powers exercised by the government are delegated to it by the citizens, so Jefferson refers to legislative bodies “to whom the people have delegated the powers of legislation… but when they are dissolved by the lopping off one or more of their branches, the power reverts to the people… ” Like Locke, Jefferson maintains that the initiation of force is incompatible with natural rights, that “force cannot give right.”‍

The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence is by far the most philosophically significant of all of America’s founding documents. And what it consists of, by and large, is a condensation of the opening of “The Virginia Declaration of Rights,” written one month earlier by George Mason, which is itself a condensation of nearly all of the major points of the Second Treatise. As a condensation of a condensation, made by the best writer among the founding fathers, the wording of the Declaration is eloquent and concise in its statement of Locke’s ideas. Just as Locke maintains that in the state of nature, all men enjoy freedom and equality, and Mason maintains that “all men are by nature equally free and independent,” Jefferson, having earlier referred to “the laws of nature,” maintains that “all men are created equal.” Just as Locke locates the foundation of rights in god, Jefferson maintains that men “are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” Just as Locke sees the fundamental natural rights as consisting of life, liberty, and property, and Mason “life,” “liberty” and “the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety,” so Jefferson similarly lists the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” While Locke says that rights belong to individual men and thus precede government, and Mason “that all power is vested in, and consequently derived from the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them,” Jefferson says that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed.” Finally, while Locke writes of the right of citizens to revolt against repressive governments, and Mason that “whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority for the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish it,” Jefferson writes that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and to institute new government.” Just as Locke maintains that the need for revolt becomes evident when “a long train of abuses, prevarication’s, and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people,” Jefferson’s likewise maintains that the need for revolt becomes evident when “when a long train of abuses and usurpation’s, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism.”

Of course, after the Declaration of Independence, America’s most important founding document is the Constitution. And since the Constitution provides a bridge between the principles of political philosophy and the principles of law, Locke’s influence also pervades it, though less directly. Developing Locke’s arguments in general, and his argument for private property in particular, James Madison, the primary architect of the constitution, wrote that the major purpose of government is “the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property.” Speaking at another time of property in its extended sense, what Locke called “that property which men have in their persons as well as goods,” Madison wrote that government “is instituted to protect property of every sort: as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses.”

According to writer Walter Berns, “Locke was in fact the first to delineate the elements of what we know as the separation of powers, probably the most formal of constitutional forms.” Not surprisingly, the system of checks and balances and the separation of powers written into the constitution were ultimately designed, according to John Adams, to achieve the Lockian goal of protecting the “life, liberty, and property” of the citizens.

Reducing the tenure in office by means of frequent elections was necessary, according to James Mason, because “all power was originally lodged in, and consequently is derived from, the people.” Thus public officials must be made to frequently depend on the “body of the people… for their approbation or dissent.” The founding fathers’ recognition of the necessity of the separation of church and state and the right to freedom of speech as expressed in Article 1 of the Bill of Rights was derived from the arguments Locke presented in his “Letter on Toleration.” This is clear when one examines the arguments presented in James Madison’s “A Memorial and Remonstrance on the Religious Rights of Man,” and Jefferson’s “Act for Establishing Religious Freedom” (1779) and “Notes on the State of Virginia,” (1787). For example, Madison argues that religious choices “can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” In the Notes, Jefferson maintains, like Locke, that the sphere of the magistrate extends only to “civil concernments”: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” In the Act, Jefferson argues for religious freedom, but is also quick to perceive and apply the implications of Locke’s argument for the freedom of speech generally: “… truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.” Like Locke, he sees that government officials are no less fallible, and therefore no more qualified to force their opinions on others than are private citizens: “Galileo was sent to the inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure his error. This error however at length prevailed, the earth became a globe…”‍

As all of the above should make abundantly clear, John Locke was the intellectual founding father of the United States of America, without whose ideas there would have been neither a revolution nor a revolutionary ideology of political freedom to implement at that revolution’s conclusion. It is fundamentally to him that America, and the world, should owe its gratitude for such political and economic freedom as have existed in the past few centuries, as well as for the ideas, art, and material prosperity that that freedom has made possible.


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One Reply to “The Political Philosophy of John Locke and Its Influence on the Founding Fathers and the Political Documents They Created”

  1. These principles and later explanations should be apart of all civics courses in all 12 years education and for sure in college and university sfudy. A narion that does not know its history in detail is doomed for failure and will loose its freedoms without fail !!

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